Chapter 16, Before Dawn Saturday, June 7— Coming Home
It was very early, with the sun beginning to glint off the highest clouds, when the group began to approach the Wither’s gate. Grace stopped, looking nervously ahead. “Does anyone have any of that salve of Dahlia’s?”
Sapphire stopped and shook her head. “Anyone?” They all stopped and looked at each other.
Bones cleared his throat. “Well, I got a sample, meaning to analyze it — horrible smelling stuff. Haven’t been back to the lab since then though.” He rummaged through his belt pouches and pulled out a tiny little jar. “Not a lot of it, but I doubt if it works anyway. I mean, it might keep everything way, not just werewolves and vampires. But beyond that, it may as well be voodoo nonsense.”
The friar reached out for the jar. “Let me see that. Let’s think what could be done with this.” He resumed walking toward the gate, and everyone fell into step behind him. Suddenly, the pungent smell of Dahlia’s salve cut through the air. The friar turned and tossed the jar to Sapphire, who caught it and stared inside; it was empty. Looking up, she saw the friar sprinting to the gate, pushing it open, and squeezing through.
“Fool!” Sapphire and the rest ran after him, except Woody, who tried to calm the mules.
The friar headed straight to the fountain, calling out as he ran. “Rose! Gloss! Where are you?” They could see several dark figures around the fountain. One dramatically retched from the smell. Three others grabbed the friar bodily and threw him into the fountain. It was not operating, but the base was full of rainwater and muck, and it made a big splash.
Most of the way down the driveway, the three ladies, Scooter, and Bones faced a mob of undead, weapons at the ready.
The most frightening undead figure was a skeletal figure dressed in tattered red. He advanced on them menacingly, brandishing a large scythe, and Grace and Cleo both put arrows in his chest. He took a step back, but recovered his balance. He then threw back his head and laughed. “You can’t hurt us with those puny weapons! Be gone, before I forget my promises and infect you all!”
The friar emerged from the fountain, sputtering and dripping slime. At least the smell of Dahlia’s salve was masked, though the stink of the muck was pretty bad too.
Gloss grabbed hold of little Rose and shouted at the friar. “Go back to your church! We don’t want you here. Rose is sick and you can’t help her, anyway.”
Another group of dark figures emerged from the mansion and started their way.
The friar looked around at the new group and flew into a panic, scrambling from the fountain, and pushing between the zombies. Without a word, he fled down the driveway towards the gate.
The adventurers, weapons at the ready, backed down the driveway after him. Two zombies, the ones in the overcoat and the overalls, stepped towards them. “Wait…” But the red-clad one stepped in front of the two and blocked their progress with his scythe.
Scooter called out as they backed away. “Mr. and Mrs. Autumn, any messages for your family?”
The zombie in a dress put her hands on top of her head. “Just tell them I love them, and hope they are all okay. They shouldn’t come here looking for me. Just — be well.” She sobbed, but no tears seemed to come.
The group left the Withers Estate, and headed for the bridge. There was the friar banging on the gate and ringing a bell suspended beside it.
The friar seemed to catch his breath. “The zombies are coming! They’re right behind us!”
Doug peered off across the bridge. “Iffen the zombies are coming, that sure wouldn’t be a reason to open the gate. I should be alerting the guard.”
Sapphire spoke up firmly. “The zombies are not coming, they just chased us out of where we should never have been in the first place. Now we want to get these mules back to the stables and get back to our beds. You’re already up, so why don’t you just let us through?”
Doug scowled at her. “I don’t answer to you, missy.”
The friar straightened up. “But you are sworn to serve officials of the Church and that means me. Open this gate at once, and let us through!”
Still scowling and muttering, Doug pulled out a big iron key and let them through, then locked the gate behind them, staring off across the bridge.
Most of the party peeled off but the three ladies headed together for the stables with the mules.
Cleo leaned over to look him in the eye. “We sure did. He was a real jerk though. But we saw a unicorn, an ogre, an elephant, and zombies, too!”
Duncan whistled. “Oh boy! I wish I had been there.”
Clang came up and rustled his hair. “You still have some growing up to do before you can go chasing after dragons. Go on, tend to those mules. I bet they need some water.” He watched Duncan lead off the mules. “Oh when I was his age, I always wanted to ride on a dragon, up in the clouds. But a unicorn, that would be really special. Did you really see the unicorn? I’ve hear about it, but never saw it myself.”
Cleo nodded. “Yep. All silver and gold in the moonlight. It was beautiful.”
Clang sighed. “Oh, to ride a unicorn….” He had a rag and kept polishing his anvil as he stared off into space.
Sapphire beckoned. “Come on you two, let’s get to bed.”
The inn door was not locked, and they entered the front room. Beryl was there, polishing mugs behind the bar. Cleo looked up above his head. “Hey, I never really noticed the balcony before. That must be where the stairs lead.”
Grace giggled. “Bed, woman. You’re getting loopy.”
Beryl watched them enter one of the doors on either side of the bar. “Mind, don’t trip over any shoes. The lanterns are out.”
Cleo turned and stared at him. “Shoes? What shoes?”
Beryl gestured with his rag. “The ones people left out for the brownie.” Seeing her puzzlement he went on. “You know, leave out your shoes with a coin or two and the brownie will clean or polish ‘em for you. Even make repairs in the leather.”
Sapphire came back and looked at him darkly. “You mean a mousling?”
Beryl knit his brown. “A what? Oh we call him a brownie, but he’s a leprechaun, really. Little guy dressed in green?”
Sapphire turned back to the hall. “You’re right, Grace, we’re all getting loopy.” They trudged down the hall and turned into the cross corridor. There, a tiny little man in green dropped the pair of shoes he had been carrying, screamed, and ran around another corner.
The three ladies looked at one another, and tiredly headed towards their rooms.
Cleo was bunking with Rufus, and she was surprised to see he was sitting up in silent meditation. He barely noticed her, as she collapsed on the bed and was sound asleep.
Goldilocks beckoned. “Come quietly, your presence is required.”
Rufus scowled, but followed her into the hall. They went up the stair to the second floor, then to the base of the ladder that led to the attic. Sapphire was waiting there, with a questioning look in her eyes. Rufus shrugged.
Goldilocks gestured. “Up, please.” They climbed the ladder and emerged into the attic, only to find themselves surrounded by mouslings.
The two Vikings were very much in their face as they emerged, with drawn weapons, but backed off rather than look ridiculous facing the humans’ kneecaps. Flicker and Sticker, and now Goldilocks in mousling form, were off to the sides. The two from the Council stood further off and studied them.
The female spoke first. “You are Rufus and Sapphire?”
Sapphire spoke for them. “Yes, what’s going on?”
“You two are the only ones to whom our presence has been revealed.”
“We’ve met a few mouslings, and he tracked your progress from the ship. But we are both animal friends, you have nothing to fear from us.”
The female smirked. “Oh, we have nothing to fear. Beorn, Brunhilda, you can put your weapons away. We are from the Grand Council of Mouslings. We will not use names at this time, as we serve simply as representatives of the Council. You may call me Mistress, him Master. We are here to judge the conduct of these three, whom claim to call you friends, as set forth in our Book of Mousling Law.” The male held forth the book, big as his chest, and opened it.
Rufus spoke up. “What about Animus, who has been trying to catch mouslings? Why isn’t he here too?”
The Mistress shook her head. “We are not here to judge humans, or repair the damage caused these mouslings.” She waved her hand. “You are here to give witness only, at the request of your,” she gave a scornful look, “friends.”
“And the gray mouslings from the city?”
Two mousling sorcerers exchanged glances. “So far they appear not to have transgressed so far as to break any of the Laws. They spoke only to you, as we have divined, and you were already enlightened as to our high level intellect, so they are saved on a technicality. We are here, charged to judge these three only.”
Sapphire stood tall. “Well, then I can testify that it was not their fault that they were uncovered. We are both master sorcerers in our own right. We discovered their identities through our arts, and confronted them. They are not to blame for breaking any statute of secrecy.”
The Mistress looked thoughtful. “On this we agree. Goldilocks has in fact maintained her secret status for many years, quite successfully despite the occasional trick she played on despicable clients. And Sticker has been a voice of caution, holding back his companion from rash action. He too is blameless. In fact, it is only Flicker who has acted rashly and in violation of the statutes. We are here to judge and pass sentence on him. Flicker, what do you have to say that might justify your actions?”
Flicker looked about weakly, then steeled himself. “Everything I did to those humans was totally justified by their treatment of animals. They are horrible, and deserved every trick I pulled on them. Anyway, there is a long tradition of mouslings baiting and harassing humans from a position of concealment.”
The Mistress looked stern. “We will pass for the moment on the wearing of articles of clothing in the presence of an unenlightened human, and agree that baiting humans is not the issue. But you went further than mere trickery, did you not?”
Flicker scuffed his toe and looked down. “Well, sometimes I don’t know my own strength…”
The Mistress cut him off. “It is never a question of size, as you should know as well as any mousling! It is a matter of intent! Having failed to change the behavior of those humans, you sought to wipe them out, did you not?”
Flicker looked up. “So I was mad at them! But nobody knows it was me that did it. The secrecy statutes were not breached!”
The Mistress shook her head sadly. “Oh Flicker. Do you not think the manifestation of four powerful elementals, and their familiars, would go unnoticed in the human world? Do you not think they would investigate through mystic and divine channels to learn the origins of this event? By pulling this disaster down on them, you have brought disaster to all of mousling kind.”
Flicker looked abashed. “Sorry?”
The Mistress chuckled. “That will hardly suffice. You will pay for your transgressions.”
Flicker groaned. “You’re not taking me back to the school, are you?”
She shook her head. “No, they wouldn’t take you back in any event. The Master will now pronounce your punishment, as dictated by the Book of Mousling Law.”
Everyone looked at the male mousling sorcerer, who had been turning pages of his book. He looked up now and gave a little cough. “Flicker, the responsibility for this situation rests on your shoulders, and yours alone. You must repair this unfortunate state of affairs, or die trying. You must defuse this crisis and abate the damage being done by the Elementals before the humans, as a group, discover the part of mouslings in this matter. Fix their attention, and the blame for the matter, elsewhere. You may rely on these few ‘friends’ of yours to assist but by no means make the situation worse. If you succeed, you will be allowed to keep your wand. You can figure out the alternative. I have spoken.”
Sticker gave Flicker a dig with his elbow. “I told you so.”
The Mistress spoke up. “We will withdraw outside the town. If you need to consult, you know how to contact us. However, do not expect us to assist you. We, at least, are aware of the dangers of revealing too much magical energy being released into the universe. Good day to you all.”
Rufus raised a hand. “Wait! I see a contradiction here. Did you not come on the pirate ship? Haven’t you revealed yourself to them, in order to punish Flicker for doing the same thing?”
The Mistress smiled. “No. We learned of Flicker’s activities, we commissioned our warrior friends here to spy at the docks for us and find a ship, we cast spells to befuddle the pirates into coming this way. They are completely confused as to why they came here, and know nothing of us. Please keep it that way.” With a final nod, the two mousling sorcerers slipped out of the attic through the eves, followed by the two Viking mouslings.
Rufus turned on Flicker. “Holy shit on a shingle! You were the one that called down the great storm that wiped out the roads?”
Flicker puffed out his chest. “Yep! That was me!”
Sticker boxed his ears. “You idiot.”
Sapphire shook her head tiredly. “I’m going to bed.”